One of the more difficult problems to unravel in the world of higher education is the fact that universities are responsible both for delivering teaching and judging whether or not a student has learned enough to get a degree. To most reasonable minds, this is a conflict of interest. Indeed, this is the conflict that makes universities unreformable: as long as universities have a monopoly on judging their own quality, no one external to the system (students, governments) can make realistic comparisons between institutions, or can push for improvements.
Yet, it hasn’t always been this way. Even in living memory, the University of London was, to a large extent, an examination body. Higher education institutions all over Africa were simply “colleges” that taught at the higher education level; to get a degree, students would still have to sit exams set by the University of London. One body teaches, one body examines.
Historically, Canadian universities did a lot of this kind of thing. The University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria both started as “affiliates” of McGill, before they got degree-granting status of their own – students would learn at one institution, and then get a degree from another. Ditto Brandon with McMaster. Similarly, the University of Manitoba started out as an examining body for students taking degrees at a variety of denominational colleges across Winnipeg (including United College, which later went its own way and became the University of Winnipeg); even the University of Toronto got its start as an examining body, responsible for overseeing the work of denominational colleges like Trinity. Eventually, of course, Toronto and Manitoba started providing teaching as well as judging, and eventually all of these institutions became the regular kind of universities we know today, only with really awkward college structures.
Would something like that still work today? Well, in some places it still does. A.C. Grayling’s much-maligned New College of the Humanities in London does not issue its own degrees, but rather prepares students to take the University of London exams. In India, tens of thousands of colleges exist that do nothing but prepare students for examinations from one of the roughly 200 “real” universities (which also teach their own students at their own campuses).
Could we get this genie back out of its bottle by creating a new university, which could test what other universities are doing? Well, this could only work if the new university had a higher level of prestige than the institutions that students were currently attending; otherwise, a student would quite reasonably not bother, and just stick with the degree from the institution s/he was already at. The reason it used to work here is because the colleges were new and had no prestige, whereas the established university (e.g. McGill) or the provincially-mandated organization (e.g. Manitoba) were seen as bigger and better.
In truth, the only way this could work nowadays is if a genuinely stupendous university (say, Harvard) would offer to give degrees to anyone who could pass its exams. But as we’ve seen with the MOOCs saga, the one thing that stupendous universities really don’t want to do is to dilute their perceived exclusiveness by giving out degrees to the hoi polloi. You could set up government institutions to do it, as Korea has done with its Academic Credit Bank and self-study degrees; as innovative as those are, however, they are still seen as second-class degrees as far as prestige is concerned.
Where you could imagine this kind of system working is in developing countries, where a lot of new universities are opening at once (e.g. Kenya, Ghana). Here, new universities might actually attract more students if they could claim that students would earn degrees from the system’s flagship institution. But in our neck of the woods, it’s much harder to see a workable way to divorce teaching from degree-granting.